Trek to Mars Introduces NASA's Next Generation

This week's mission reveals agency fueled by Looney Toons and youthful exuberance

A cluster of young adults conspire in a corner with whispers and sidelong glances. Feigning nonchalance, they slowly form a line, suddenly crouch, and with grins and laughter perform the "wave."

Welcome to mission control, Mars Pathfinder style.

From the flight engineers monitoring spacecraft systems to the scientists ogling the stunning images of the Martian surface, this is the youngest staff to headline a high-profile mission since the days of the Apollo program. Their blue jeans, Bugs-and-Taz T-shirts, and exuberant high-fives stand in stark contrast to the monotone communiqus and starched-shirt stiffness of mission teams at Houston or Cape Canaveral.

The group epitomizes a changing of the guard within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It is driven by budget cuts and agency chief Daniel Goldin's efforts to speed the pace of solar-system exploration with missions that are more tight-fisted and tightly focused. Officials hope the young talent will infuse the space agency with new vigor and a greater willingness to take risks in the quest to understand the cosmos.

NASA's next-generation shift is clearly evident to Americans watching the televised coverage of the Mars mission. Cheers and hugs erupt with each milestone met. At one point, the team gyrated and swiveled in their chairs as the theme song of "Mad About You" was piped into the control room.

When Sojourner rolled onto the Martian soil July 5, the entire Mars Pathfinder operations team filed into the press briefing room, giving congratulatory high fives to mission manager Richard Cook and rover manager Jacob Matijevic and preempting their remarks with thunderous chants of "Cook, Cook, Cook" and "Jake, Jake, Jake."

Younger, faster, cheaper?

Several key posts in this mission are held by relatively youthful staff. Pathfinder flight director Jennifer Harris, for example, is a 1990 Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who is working on her master's degree at the University of Southern California.

"JPL is reacting faster than the centers" in moving along NASA's new path, says Donna Lee Shirley, an aerospace engineer and manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Exploration Program Office. "Dan Goldin is using us as a model."

But NASA's "graybeards" are still around. Tony Spear, the project manager for Mars Pathfinder, and the manager of the rover project are space program veterans. In addition, Ms. Shirley says, one of the team's experts on spacecraft power came out of retirement to work on Mars Pathfinder. Another spacecraft-power specialist on the project is nearing retirement.

But she adds that there are a lot of young people on this project - and others at NASA.

The age profile of the Mars team developed, in part, from advice Shirley sought when JPL officials asked her to manage the team that built Sojourner, Pathfinder's rover. It was less costly, with a shorter time frame, than the programs to build behemoth crafts such as Galileo (a Jupiter probe) or Cassini, which is going to Saturn. Among the people she polled was Kane Casani, manager of NASA's New Millennium program - an effort to push the envelope on technologies for future spacecraft.

"He told me there are three kinds of people in aerospace," she says. "Those who have been in it more than 25 years, those who have been in it less than five years, and everybody in between."

He picked a team from the oldest and youngest groups, she says. "He said the old ones know it can be done because they were around when we used to do short, cheap missions. And the young ones don't know it can't be done."

But other factors are contributing to the rise of the young Turks at NASA, says Shirley. The people who started working here when it was an Army lab are retiring. Downsizing has also led to early retirements, particularly in middle management.

One of the beneficiaries of these changes is Jeff Solstad, the lead systems engineer for a robotic arm that will allow a lander to dig up soil during a Mars mission set for launch in 1999.

The young engineer says he initially had no intention of working for JPL. The lab's reputation for missions with long lead times held little appeal for someone who had developed a knack for designing experiments with a short lead-time for NASA's low-gravity research aircraft and the space shuttle - all while he was still earning degrees in aerospace engineering at the University of Washington. "I thought: 'You'll be on a 12-year program if you work there,' " he says.

Mr. Solstad sent his resume to JPL anyway, and received a job offer in the spring of 1993 that involved quick-turnaround work. He took the job.

The Mars science group also is benefiting from Mr. Casani's theories on NASA team building, according to Albert Haldemann, a planetary geologist with a "freshly minted" PhD from CalTech.

Veteran wisdom wanted

Dr. Haldemann is part of the rover soil-science team, headed by Henry Moore, a geologist who came out of retirement for this mission. A veteran of lunar survey and the Viking missions, "Hank is the wise old man," Haldemann says. As the Mars Pathfinder mission was planned, "he'd say: 'We did it wrong before, let's not do it that way again.' "

Haldemann and Solstad acknowledge they are working on projects that many of their classmates may only dream of. "The opportunities here are much better" than in the past, Haldemann says. "The onus is on the individual to get on board."

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